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The FBI Wants to Kill Encryption. Meanwhile, the Pentagon Buys New Crypto Phones

Isn’t that ironic?
April 1, 2015, 3:20pm
​Image: Holly Victoria Norval/Flickr

​To protect the communications of American servicemen and women, the Department of Defense has turn​ed to Silent Circle, a company that makes apps and even a phone that are designed to protect privacy with strong encryption.

And it's not just strong encryption; Silent Circle is built on ​making services that can't be compromised, that are designed to take even the company out of the equation. In theory, Silent Circle founders always say, even they can't spy on you because they use end-to-end encryption and don't have access to the keys. And in turn, governments can't force them to turn over their users' data.

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In light of the recent debate over encryption, led by the FBI Director James Comey, who has publicly said that new encryption technologies threaten "to lead all of us to a very dark place," it might seems a little ironic that some parts of the US government want exactly what other parts are railing against.

Even the people selling these apps and phones to the Pentagon haven't missed the irony.

"It's beyond ridiculous to me. […] They need it, why can't the public need it?"

"It's beyond ridiculous to me," Mike Janke, the chairman and co-founder of Silent Circle, told Motherboard. "They need it, why can't the public need it? Why shouldn't we be allowed to have it?"

The argument of Comey, as well as other high-ranking officials like Attorney General Eric Hol​der, and even NSA Director Mike Rogers, is that encryption is fine as long as authorities have a way to circumvent it if they need to. That'd be the case if they want to, say, monitor a terrorist, or a pedophile. If they can't do that, they say, they would "go d​ark," which is an FBI expression to describe a future where technology makes it impossible to to intercept criminals' communications or break into their computers or phones.

But encryption supporters counter that the FBI has been complaining about this issue since the 1990s, and that even though encryption has become more widespread, it's never been a significant hurdle for law enforcement. In 2013, for example, feds encountered encryption in only 41 cases, and that stopped them only nine times, according to governmen​t data.

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— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian)March 31, 2015

And there are other ways to ​break in, even into the new iPhone, if you really have to.

"It's a hollow cry," Janke said. "You can almost set your calendar to once a year some FBI guy comes out, GCHQ, a couple of politicians that support the Senate Intelligence Committee, they'll always say 'oh, we're going dark.' How long have they been saying that?"

Janke, who said that Silent Circle software and phones are now being sold to 13 or 14 governments around the world, added that these discussions have never come up in meetings with government clients. That's because the people who come to them are "geeks," he said, and don't get into policies.

The solution to this apparent encryption problem, according to government officials, is some sort of compromise: a "front d​oor" or "golden​ key" that allows the good guys to break or circumvent encryption when needed. The problem is that such a thing doesn't exist, according to techno​logists and encryption e​xperts.

Encryption "may make it a tiny bit more difficult to investigate a few criminals in some very specific situations, but it keeps the rest of us much safer."

And there are risks associated with systems that have built-in vulnerabilities: those can be exploited by the bad guys too.

If tech companies, including Silent Circle, were forced to build such apps and phones, and US soldiers used them, "the FBI would quite literally be putting our troops at risk, given that other foreign governments could find the vulnerability or steal the keys to spy on US soldiers," according to Trevor Timm, the co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

"This is why encryption is so important," Timm told Motherboard. "It may make it a tiny bit more difficult to investigate a few criminals in some very specific situations, but it keeps the rest of us much safer."